PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Ravens 9-7
2. Steelers 9-7
3. Bengals 9-7
4. Browns 3-13
Last season three teams out of the AFC North made the playoffs. Because the AFC North is paired with playing the AFC West and NFC West this season, I only see one team making the playoffs out of this division.
Each team in this division has a positive but also a glaring negative that makes me weary of their chances of making the playoffs.
The Ravens discovered that their running game goes on after Ray Rice. As you recall, Rice was implicated in a domestic violence incident where he was originally suspended for the first two games of the season, but more evidence surfaced that it was a lot worse than originally reported. Rice was suspended by the NFL for the entire season and released by the Ravens. Justin Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns in his place which included a 182 yard and 2 touchdown performance in a Monday night win at the Saints in Week 12.
The receiving corps is a concern though. The team let Torrey Smith go and sign with the 49ers. Their leading receiver from last season, Steve Smith, caught 79 passes for 1,065 yards and 6 touchdowns, but will be 36 this season. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Lions. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was given another head coaching chance; this time returning to Denver where he carried the clipboard for John Elway.
The Steelers have offensive weapons at their disposal. According to ESPN’s Fantasy Rankings, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are the tops in their respective positions. As of this writing Bell is ranked #1 overall and Brown is #6.
Something to remember if you are a Steelers fan, a fantasy owner with Bell on your team, or both is that Bell is expected to miss the first two games due to violating the league’s substance abuse program. Also, future Hall of Famer Troy Polomalu announced his retirement in April and Dick LeBeau signed with Tennessee to be their defensive coordinator.
Cincinnati finished 12th in points allowed and made the playoffs for the 5th time in 6 seasons. However, like in previous playoff trips, the Bengals failed to advance to the next round. Quarterback Andy Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs and this miserable stat line: 55.7% pass completion, 873 yards, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions. Head coach Marvin Lewis is no better having made the playoffs 6 times in Cincinnati and been one-and-done each instance.
Cleveland had a 6-3 record and was in first place in the division after their 24-3 win over the Bengals in Week 10. And then proceeded to lose 6 of their final 7 games. Even though quarterback Johnny Manziel had a good preseason, the Browns are going with Josh McCown as their starter. I do not see the Browns duplicating their early season success like last season. If the Browns can win games against the Steelers and Ravens, they might have a shot at being in the playoff mix. As I look at their schedule there are not that many opportunities for victories.
And that is not the only ugly thing about the Browns heading into 2015… Those uniforms… GAHHHH!!!!
The Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals will end up beating each other up this season and only one of them will make the playoffs. I am giving a slight edge to the Ravens in part due to their recent history. Since the arrival of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco to Baltimore in 2008, the Ravens have only missed the playoffs once and each time that the Ravens have made the playoffs they have won at least one playoff game including winning Super Bowl XLVII. The Steelers have had their share of success in that same period also having played in two Super Bowls winning Super Bowl XLIII and losing Super Bowl XLV, but I think the loss of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Polomalu’s retirement will hinder the Steelers efforts to make a return to the playoffs.